Contact: Historians and Filmmakers Communicate at World Congress
Robert Brent Toplin, February 2002
From the Noteworthy column in the February 2002 Perspectives
"History is the new Rock 'n' Roll," declared Henry Beckton Jr., president of WGBH-Boston, as he welcomed guests to the first World Congress of History Producers. Many of the 380 delegates present at the October 2001 conference in Boston agreed with Beckton's upbeat assessment of history's growing popularity on television. They observed that history programming on public television stations and commercial stations (such as the History Channel) were attracting substantial audiences. In view of the many efforts worldwide to produce new history films for TV, media executives from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia organized the first world congress and planned for a second annual meeting to take place in Berlin in October 2002. Participants at the congress considered practices of the filmmaking craft and the key issues and controversies associated with interpreting history on the TV screen.
Although most of the delegates were filmmakers or television executives, historians were also in attendance. Many of the historians present had a professional connection with the media. They wrote, directed, or produced TV programs, served as advisers to television projects, worked on-camera as commentators or hosts, or were engaged in scholarship on film and TV.
In a provocative keynote address, Columbia University historian Simon Schama praised some television programs as "extraordinary contributions" but lambasted many others for offering the public little more than "celluloid Prozac." Schama, who hosts the History Channel's documentary series, A History of Britain, complained that television often fails to engage viewers in serious thinking about the past. Far too often TV documentaries deliver painless analyses and happy endings. These simplistic treatments aim to please audiences that are accustomed to "drive-through solutions." Schama challenged filmmakers to create stimulating televised histories that confront viewers "with the discomfort of complexity." He urged producers to design programs that "don't necessarily send you to bed feeling good, but . . . which might educate you in the thorny difficulty of truth, television history which opts for hard questions over sound-bite answers."
Questions about collaboration between historians and filmmakers came up in a number of sessions. One of the central issues in these discussions concerned the value of featuring historians as "talking heads." Filmmakers differed sharply when discussing the practice. Some said they used scholars frequently on-screen to provide context and expertise. Others proclaimed their determination to keep "academics" off the screen. These filmmakers preferred featuring interviews with eyewitnesses to history, people who, they said, were better at "telling stories." These filmmakers assumed that professional historians were more adept at analysis than relating detailed and intriguing personal observations. One filmmaker explained his preference bluntly, saying, "It's not so much what someone says but how it is said." Paul Stekler took a middle position in this debate. Stekler reported that he intended to keep historians in the background as advisers when making George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire. However, his consultant, historian Dan Carter of the University of South Carolina, offered such interesting and persuasive comments on Wallace that Stekler broke his rule and gave Carter a prominent role in the film.
The question of historians' roles in advising filmmakers also attracted a good deal of attention. In one session, a moderator asked for ideas regarding the effective employment of scholars as consultants. Historians on the panel suggested that scholars should be engaged in the early stages of a TV project. Consultation would prove more useful, they said, if filmmakers sought historians' views in the conceptualization of a film rather than turning to them only for fact-checking in the later stages of production. In view of the numerous queries about filmmaker-scholar relationships, organizers said they hoped to include a session specifically devoted to this topic in the 2002 congress in Berlin.
Filmmakers led a number of sessions in which "masters" demonstrated their techniques for exciting the viewers' interest in history. In the first of these classes David Grubin, creator of popular PBS television biographies of Napoleon, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson, stressed the importance of the opening moments in a TV documentary. Grubin said filmmakers must assume that audiences who watch history programs demonstrate little initial interest in the past. Viewers will reach for the channel changer if they are not intrigued immediately. Producers must discover techniques that will stimulate viewers' curiosity and hunger for information. Grubin then demonstrated his approach. Screening the opening minutes of LBJ, he showed how a "tease" helped to draw audiences "into the tent." Grubin designed the brief and engaging introduction—showing President Lyndon B. Johnson dancing triumphantly at his 1965 inauguration ball—to establish a "guiding intelligence" for the entire film. Narration identified Johnson's popularity and achievements at that moment in history, and then it hinted of problems that cast dark clouds over LBJ's presidency just a few years later. In this manner Grubin's documentary quickly aroused viewer curiosity about the causes of the president's difficulties, and it suggested the relevance of his personal tragedy to modern U.S. and world history.
Because most of the individuals in attendance worked with documentary films, the sessions concentrated on nonfiction television programming. One session did, however, give attention to the brief dramatic "recreations" that often appear in documentaries that deal with history before the era of photography. Programs about antiquity or the early modern period, for instance, often include brief dramatic segments that illustrate historic conditions or depict the actions of important figures. Often these films establish their own rules of genre. One commentator joked about familiar symbolism in such recreations. He noted that a film showing a peasant looking anxiously toward the sky typically signals the coming of the French Revolution.
Another session dealt specifically with the full-length fiction film. Historians in this session gave docudrama a rather enthusiastic endorsement. Natalie Zemon Davis challenged the familiar skepticism about dramatic license taken in feature films. She talked of ways that feature films might suggest the qualities of experience and change in the past as efficaciously as prose, even while insisting that the truth status of reenactment film is different from written recital. Davis used Peter Watkins's new film on the Paris Commune—La Commune (Paris, 1871)—as an example. The historical richness of cinematic suggestion lies in its connection with evidence, its balance, and its willingness to suggest where a story comes from, she said. Urging audiences to think imaginatively about the possibilities for creating intelligent dramatizations, Natalie Davis ended with a plea for collaboration between historians and filmmakers that focused on big issues and was infused with mutual respect. Robert Brent Toplin stressed that communicating ideas about history on the movie or TV screen was very different from communicating ideas on the pages of a book. Using Titanic (1997) as a test case, he argued that the popular Hollywood movie raised important historical questions despite its many artistic flourishes. When delegates had a chance to present their own views on dramatic film at the end of this session, naval historian Jack Green presented an amusing, multifaceted indictment of the treatment of facts associated with the events of December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor (2001). Green observed that during the year prior to release of the movie the production's unofficial web site emphasized the filmmakers' concern about accuracy. The finished film showed little evidence of such attention to details, Green argued.
Near the end of the congress, one of the moderators asked a group of accomplished filmmakers to name the history films they wished they had created. His query challenged the artists to identify models of imaginative cinematic treatment of historical subjects. Among the filmmakers' favorites were The Civil War, Night and Fog, Hotel Terminus, Culloden, Hearts and Minds, The Nasty Girl, The Gates of Heaven, and Rabbit on the Moon. Several delegates called for more ambitious efforts to break from the standard documentary genre, which usually contains a familiar mix of narration, photographs, film, interviews, quotations, and contemporary photography. They recommended greater experimentation with distinctive techniques of visual and aural communication.
At various points in the conference, participants addressed questions about problems with television's presentation of history. Eric Stange argued that documentary filmmakers needed to find ways "to make peace as exciting as war." Some participants called for more attention to the role of women. They complained that history on television concentrates on men's participation in politics, war, and other public affairs. Some argued that the History Channel concentrates too much on World War II themes ("All Nazis, All the Time," quipped one delegate), but they observed approvingly that the channel has been featuring a greater variety of programming in recent years. Others complained that whites monopolized the filmmaking craft. "Rarely do we get a chance to tell our stories," said Victor Masayesva Jr., speaking for Native Americans. Loni Ding, producer of films about Asian Americans, argued that television viewed minorities primarily as victims. The medium gave inadequate attention to their roles as agents—as people who resisted oppression. Llew Smith articulated one of the most provocative challenges in this regard. Smith said he did not mind if some representatives of the white majority produced films about blacks in slavery, but he expressed suspicion when white artists constituted the "dominant voices" in crafting television's interpretations of slavery. Llew Smith's criticism made a strong impression, for Barton Byg quoted his remarks extensively when summarizing the lessons he drew from the conference during a wrap-up speech at the final luncheon.
Above all, the congress facilitated an important dialogue between historians and filmmakers that may continue as the meetings take place on an annual basis. The discussions in Boston helped to break a troublesome silence. For many years, historians and filmmakers have studied each other's work, but they shared few of their observations about that work in face-to-face public exchanges. Hopefully, the world congress will become a useful forum for promoting such interaction.
Additional information on the congress, including the full text of Simon Schama's keynote address, is available at www.History2001.com. Details on the next congress will be available at www.History2002.com. Initiative for the congress came from the Banff Television Foundation, and WGBH-Boston served as principal host.
—Robert Brent Toplin of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington is serving as visiting professor this year at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Toplin is film review editor forthe Journal of American History and the author of several books and articles about film and history. His newest book, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (University Press of Kansas), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2002.